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Civil War Veteran Awarded Medal Of Honor, 150 Years Later


Pres. Obama awarded the Medal of Honor today to a soldier who stayed at his post under withering fire 151 years ago. Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing was just 22, commanding an artillery battery during the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg.


BARACK OBAMA: In the chaos and smoke, Lon and his men could barely see ahead of them. One colonel later described the terrible grander of that rain of missiles and that chaos of strange and terror-spreading sounds.

BLOCK: And what Lieutenant Cushing did during the chaos finally earned him the nation's highest award for bravery. NPR's Tom Bowman has more.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: In the moments before Confederate troops attacked, a heavy barrage of artillery shells landed squarely on Lieutenant Cushing's position. Set at the top of a wide and grassy slope, gunners and horses died where they stood. Most of his cannons were smashed to pieces. Shell fragments ripped into Cushing's body. He struggled to roll one of his remaining guns toward a stone wall.

KENT BROWN: He had been wounded twice - once in the shoulder, once in the groin.

BOWMAN: Kent Brown wrote the book "Cushing Of Gettysburg."

BROWN: The man was virtually ill from there on because of the wounds.

BOWMAN: But for 90 minutes, Cushing continued to give commands, refusing to leave Cemetery Ridge. He ordered the guns filled with canister rounds - basically, tin cans filled with iron balls. Then he waited, watching as thousands of Confederate troops swarmed straight toward him. Pickett's Charge had begun. Historian David McCullough described what happened next on the PBS series "The Civil War."




DAVID MCCULLOUGH: Suddenly, the Union artillery on Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top open fire, and a great moan went up from the Confederate line.


MCCULLOUGH: We could not help hitting them at every shot, a federal officer recalled. As many as 10 men at a time were destroyed by a single bursting shell.

BOWMAN: Cushing directed every shot from his gunners, but he became so weak, his sergeant, Frederick Fuger, had to hold him up. Years later, Fuger wrote about the scene.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He called out, Fuger, stand by me and impart my orders to the battery. but he soon became faint and suffered frightfully. I wanted to have him taken to the rear, but he refused, declaring he would stay right there and fight it out or die in the attempt. When the enemy had approached within a hundred yards, Lieutenant Cushing was shot in the mouth and instantly killed.

BOWMAN: Sergeant Fuger caught the lieutenant in his arms. He ordered two men to carry him to the rear. Then Fuger took command and later would be awarded the Medal of Honor himself. At the time, the medal could not be awarded posthumously. Lieutenant Cushing's heroism became something of a Gettysburg footnote. Veterans placed a small stone tablet with his name at the top of Cemetery Ridge. And his story might have ended there, if not for the persistence of Margaret Zerwekh. She lives on the land once owned by the Cushing family in Wisconsin. She told NPR in 2010 how she got started.


MARGARET ZERWEKH: Well, I went to the mayor, and I said, hey, let's - Alonzo belongs to us. Let's get him a Medal of Honor.

BOWMAN: That visit to the mayor was in 1987. She wrote letters to Congress, and just four years ago, she got the support of Army officials who finally approved the award. The medal is stuck in the system until today.


OBAMA: And I want to especially acknowledge Margaret Zerwekh, who is a historian from Delafield, Wisconsin, where Lieutenant Cushing was born. And there's Margaret, back there.


OBAMA: Good to see you, Margaret.

BOWMAN: Zerwekh is now 94. She joined some two dozen descendants of Lieutenant Cushing at the White House ceremony. Cushing himself was buried at his alma mater, West Point, a few days after the Gettysburg Battle. His mother and sister insisted the tombstone inscription Faithful Unto Death. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.